Also known as the runner/pursuer dynamic in conflict, related to avoidant and anxious attachment.
Here is an example of the dynamic in action:
Person 1 (runner): Gets overwhelmed with negative emotion, and either closes down and stops speaking or physically exits the situation.“I can’t do this right now”, “I’m leaving” Person 2 (chaser): Wants to restore harmony and resolve the disagreement. Continues to express painful emotions, criticise the runner, pressure the runner to answer questions or physically follow them. “I’m furious!” “I can’t believe you would ____” “What are we going to do about _____???” “Don’t you dare” “Come back!” “Please don’t leave!”
Person 1: Feels even more pressured, panicked, upset, angry etc - being in this other person’s presence feels unsafe. Needs to get away to calm self down and work out true feelings.
Person 2: Anxiety is elevated. Racing, panicked thoughts: Why can’t they just come back? If they cared about me, wouldn’t they want to solve this? Why won’t they see my point of view? It’s so cruel to leave me hanging. Are they leaving me? Is it my fault that this happened? Am I a bad person? I love them so much. I want to let them know how much I care. I just want to say sorry and help them understand their fears aren’t true. I’m worried about them. They seemed so upset… Maybe I should call? Person 1: (alone) Ahh… peace and quiet. I needed this. I didn’t know how to communicate it at the time but I was feeling so much when we were fighting. Shame, anger, grief… I couldn’t find words to express those big emotions and I was scared that if I did I’d just be attacked. It really hurts me when I’m criticised. I’m used to other people using my vulnerabilities to harm me, to use that information against me. It’s safer not to open up, not to trust. I’m not ready to face all the feelings that conversation brought up so I’m going to do me for a little while… I’ll work it out later.
Both the pursuer and distancer provoke each others’ anxieties. For the pursuer, being out of contact, not knowing where they stand, worrying about what the other person thinks of them, feeling that there are misunderstandings that they don’t have a chance to resolve is really scary. They want to restore harmony. For the distancer, being in the conversation where their vulnerabilities might be attacked and dramatic emotional expressions are being thrown in their direction is terrifying. In retreating they create a safe space to recover and process. They want to restore inner peace.
A lot of the drama of pursuer/distancer dynamics come from misunderstanding each others’ perspective and assigning a negative motive to their actions - if you are a habitual distancer you might not know how it feels to be a pursuer and you might see their actions as controlling, whilst a pursuer might see a distancer’s behaviour as cold and uncaring. Learning about the opposite to your conflict style and having a conversation with your loved one when you are calm to both explain how it feels to be in your bodies during conflict can be great first steps to develop a baseline of empathy which transforms your actions.
Going forward, the pursuer can learn how to self soothe so that taking space is no longer highly distressing and learn to communicate calmly to help the distancer feel safe in their presence and the distancer can learn to communicate their overwhelm and vulnerability as it arises and if a break is needed, can shorten the timeframe and communicate a brief message of “I’ll be back” to consider the pursuer’s anxiety.
Neither style is ‘wrong’ but both contain subconscious fears which cause suffering for themselves and can be healed in a healthy relationship with a partner willing to do the work .
As the chaser, you can:
When you notice your person showing signs of wanting to pull away, say "it seems like you might be feeling overwhelmed - how can I help you feel safer right now?" or "'Would you like to pause and take some space for half an hour to cool down?'
If they walk away, don't pressure them to return. Instead, practice self soothing - e.g. comforting yourself as you cry in the next room
Understand that the less pressure they put on their person to return, the more quickly they are likely to!
Understand what fears are behind the need to 'chase and resolve' e.g. fear of being abandoned, not wanting to be misunderstood, afraid you might be 'selfish' etc. When your person is calm, share that those fears come up for you to help them understand why it's scary to leave you hanging
Have a gentle conversation to find out why the distancer copes differently & what triggers them - how can you can help them feel safe so everyone wins?
As the runner, you can:
Take deep breaths during the conflict and try to centre yourself in their presence
Communicate when feeling overwhelmed "It's really hard for me to stay here right now with these powerful emotions going on inside, could you help make this conversation feel safer for me?" or suggest taking a short break
If you have to leave, communicate first that you will be back to work things out
Lean into the discomfort a little by a) dropping them a communication that lets them know you're gearing up to reconcile (e.g. going into their bedroom/ sending a message to say "'I still need some time to process but I love you, we'll work this out"
Return to repair the relationship sooner than later
Let them know what brings out your vulnerabilities so future conflicts will feel less painful (so less urge to leave)
Work out a plan with them to take steps to help them feel the relationship is safe if you have to take space again